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FINA Best Open Water Swimmer 2017: Marc-Antoine Olivier (FRA)

 

Winning the 2017 FINA Best Male Open Water Swimmer award is the cherry on top of the cake after an arduous yet fulfilling year. “This is the reward after a tricky season,” he said. “I took a long break after Rio and started training again a lot later than usual. I worked like I had never worked before to be at my best in Budapest, so it gave me confidence. But two weeks before we were set to leave for the Worlds, I was diagnosed with a bone marrow oedema in my left foot and I could barely train for a week. It was very difficult. Luckily it held up and didn’t bother me, but I did start to feel it a little bit during my last race.

 

“I rarely put too much pressure on myself”

 

Olivier’s season started in late January with a national title in the 5km Indoor race. In March, he finished fourth at the FINA/HOSA 10km Marathon Swimming World Cup competition in Abu Dhabi. In May, he competed at the national championships in both pool and open water, held merely a week apart. In Strasbourg, he won gold in the pool in the 800m and 1500m. One week later in Gravelines, he finished second overall and was first French swimmer in the 10km open water and second French swimmer in the 5km. These results earned him a ticket to Budapest.

Coming into the Worlds, his goal was to win two titles, a feat no French open water swimmer had achieved before, but he felt calm and confident. “I rarely put too much pressure on myself, even if I knew I was one of the favourites [in Budapest],” he said. “Every time, I tell myself I have nothing to lose and that I’m still young, that I still have a lot of time ahead of me. We train hard all year for this, so I don’t feel stressed, because I know what I can and cannot do. Honestly, I was more worried that my foot would start hurting than about not being able to keep pace with my opponents.

The Frenchman had a busy schedule as he was entered in the 5km, 10km and the 5km mixed team relay, all happening within a few days of each other. Olivier won his first world title in his first race, the 5km, with a time of 54 minutes 31.40 seconds. While obviously ecstatic, he also admitted he was not entirely satisfied with his race. “I was actually angry,” he said, chuckling. “It’s crazy to say that, but I was. It’s not that I was expecting to win more easily but... I tried to take the lead after 2.5km, and it was impossible. Who knows why. For 500 metres I tried to move ahead but when I realised I just couldn’t, I fell back with the pack and told myself I’d try again later. 800 metres before the finish line, I tried again and finally succeeded in moving well ahead of the Italian [Mario Sanzullo]. Of course I was happy when I touched the finish pad first, but it was a very difficult race.

Olivier didn’t have much time to celebrate his title as the 10km was only three days later. He knew he would have very little time in between and that most of his opponents had chosen to focus on the important 10km race, the only Olympic event. The French team had a precise plan in place to optimise recovery between races, but Olivier found he faced a different challenge. “Actually the physical recovery wasn’t the hardest part,” he said. “I already had a world title, so it took pressure off, but it was hard to not tell myself that the rest wasn’t as important. What was complicated was to mentally re-focus on another race after winning.” With a time of 1:51:59.20 and only 0.70sec away from the gold, he earned the bronze medal.

Finally, Olivier grabbed another gold medal two days later in the 5km mixed team relay with Océane Cassignol, Logan Fontaine and Aurélie Muller, with a time of 54:05.90. Olivier was thrilled to share the title with his team-mates, especially as he trains with Cassignol and Muller all year round. “Most of us [on the national team] were also on the junior team together,” he said. “We all know each other inside out, and that may be what makes our strength. Even if we do the same races, there is no backstabbing. This atmosphere is probably what made [the relay] happen the way it did.”

 

“People only really remember the last two or three years”

 

Olivier left Budapest as the most successful open water swimmer of the championships, but this sport wasn’t originally in his plans when he was growing up. He started swimming at the age of seven in his hometown of Denain in northern France. At 15 he left home for one of the national training centres, in Rouen. It’s there that his coach Eric Boissiere one day suggested he tried out open water, and everything rapidly clicked into place: “I realised I was good at it and that I really liked the strategy behind each race. I like games, so it suits my personality well. And of course, I liked it. You can’t do something you don’t like and expect to do well, especially at this level.

After finishing amongst the best nationally that year, he was selected for the junior national team and got off to a flying start on the international scene by winning the European junior title in the 5km. However, the next few seasons didn’t go so easily. “People only really remember the last two or three years,” he said. “But I had my first junior season and my first European title the same year, and after that I had three really tough years. I didn’t make it on to any international podiums and when you start right off the bat with a title, you always want more. My results weren’t exceptional. I was there, but I knew I couldn’t do much. It really was when I started training with Philippe [Lucas] that I started telling myself I could get to a really high level.

Indeed in 2015, Olivier made the decision to leave Rouen to train with the renowned Philippe Lucas in the south of France in Narbonne. Lucas was already coaching Muller and Dutch swimmer Sharon van Rouwendaal, now the Olympic champion in the 10km. His career picked up shortly thereafter under the wing of Lucas. At his first FINA World Championships in 2015, Olivier finished sixth in the 10km and qualified for his first Olympic Games. In February 2016, he won the FINA/HOSA 10km Marathon World Cup race in Abu Dhabi. A few months later in Rio and only 19 years old, he earned the bronze medal in the 10km, the first and so far only Olympic medal for France in open water. Now he can add double world champion and world bronze medallist to his resumé.

To get there he and his team-mates in ‘Team Lucas’ practise on average 28 hours a week, with a minimum of 25 hours in the water, depending on the day and the time of the year. “The intensity of training with [Lucas] is really different from what I was used to,” Olivier said. “Morning and afternoon, day in and day out, he asks for an intensity that you can’t find anywhere else. But that’s what I was looking for to reach that level. There is no secret, you have to work hard.

 

 

The 2017 World Championships were as successful and historic for him as they were for France. The nation ended as the highest ranked in open water, with four titles, a silver medal and a bronze medal. Before this, only Muller had been able to win a world title. Olivier is excited not only because such results from a young team are promising for the future, but also for what it means for the sport in France: “These are unforgettable memories for me, but it’s even more important for our sport. It’s hard to attract people and get them to talk about it if we don’t deliver results like this. It’s already growing considerably now.” Indeed in early September, staff of la Fluctuat, an open water race in Paris, had to close the registration after reaching 650 swimmers, a lot more than was originally anticipated and 250 more than the year before. 

FINA World Aquatics Gala “Soirée des Etoiles”
01Dec2017
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FINA Best Female Diver 2017: Shi Tingmao (CHN)


“My dream came true at the National Games”

 

How do you feel about being the new queen on the springboard after Gao Min, Fu Mingxia, Guo Jingjing and Wu Minxia?

I am flattered. For me, they are my idols and role models. I hope I can take over the baton from them and maintain the dominance. I am too young and too fresh to compare to Gao, Fu and Guo and I did not get the chance to train or compete with them. I have watched the competition videos of them and admired their domination of the sport. Wu was my synchro partner and helped me a lot after I entered the national team at the end of 2012.

 

How do you assess your performance in 2017?

It has been a difficult year for me but I got over the first-ever low-ebb season in my diving career. I had no perfect competitions at all throughout the whole year, though I took the victories. I would give myself 80 points overall for my 2017 season. I am not satisfied with my performance but happy to beat the rusty form with my strong will.

 

You have won two titles at the Budapest World Championships. Do you think you are on top of the world?

I have said before that I enjoyed international competition and I tried to show my best in Budapest since it was the first big event after the Rio Olympic Games. It was very hard to compare the Worlds with the Olympics but I felt I was not fully ready for this summer. I switched my role as a follower with veteran Wu Minxia to a leader now and I also changed my synchro partner: Chang Yani is 11 years younger than me. We started from zero and made improvement on the synchronisation each time. I performed to my normal form in the individual event and competed with myself. I was happy with the two gold medals.

 

How do you recall your performance at the Chinese National Games?

The Budapest World Championships and the Chinese National Games were held within one month. I had almost no time to prepare for the National Games but I wanted to perform better. My dream came true at the National Games when I earned a total of 409.20 points in the individual final. I know that the personal best score means nothing in diving because the level of competition, rivals, referees and so on is different in each meet. Still, it was the personal best score of my career and my best performance this year. I collected 406.50 at the Rio Olympic Games. I should say my performance at the National Games was better than the one in Budapest.

 

Talking about the National Games, is it like the Olympic Games? Why do you think it is important to you?

Yes, it is a multi-sports gala just like the Olympic Games, held every four years, but with more athletes. It might have been my last National Games because I am not a young diver. I don’t know what will happen in the next four years. I won the all-round champion title four years ago at the 12th National Games as the first diving title for my hometown in history. This time I collected two titles in the individual and synchro events. I really want to bring more glory to my hometown Chongqing and my coach Liu Ben, as well as to win more titles for China in international competition.

 

“I will keep up the fighting spirit”

 

Comparing yourself four years ago, do you think you are more experienced?

It is true that I always considered myself a rookie since I entered the national team in late 2012. I was inexperienced and fresh compared with other divers who became world and Olympic champions at a very young age. I tried my best to cherish every competition and accumulate big meet experience. Now I am one of the oldest in the team and have just been named the captain of the women’s team. I am honoured to be the captain, with more responsibility for the young divers. My role has changed from newcomer to leader in four years as I am getting older. Although I will keep up the fighting spirit in training and competition, I also need to work harder and set higher targets.

 

You are 26 – do you really think you are old?

I still think I am young in myself and compared with foreign competitors in the international events. I feel old only when I face teenage divers in my team and with my new synchro partner Chang Yani. In fact, everyone wants to be younger. I wish I could be three or four years younger and I could dive in more competitions. As Wu Minxia and Guo Jingjing both retired around 30 years old, I think maybe I can have a try. I need to learn how to deal with injuries and age.

 

Is diving still your favourite? If you were given a second chance, would you be willing to be a diver?

Yes, of course. I would definitely choose diving. I like diving and enjoy the feeling of flying from the springboard. Diving is a fun sport but needs professional teaching and training. I really hope more people and kids fall in love with diving and try to learn the sport.

FINA World Aquatics Gala “Soirée des Etoiles”
01Dec2017
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FINA Best Male Diver 2017: Tom Daley (GRB)


 

New season, new prospects

 

After taking time off Thomas Daley was then ready to start the season again in January 2017 with only the expectation of doing mixed synchronised events with Tonia Couch on the 10m and Scottish diver Grace Reid on the 3m springboard. However, a week after finishing nationals he was offered the opportunity to compete at the World Series in the individual event. While his coach Jane Figueiredo believed he still wasn’t ready to make his comeback, Daley’s champion determination took over. “Me being as stubborn as I am said, ‘No, I really, really, really want to be able to dive in the individual event in the World Series’. So I did.”

Again, his preparations failed to go smoothly when he received a frantic call from Figueiredo to say she had snapped her Achilles and would be unable to accompany him at the World Series. “I didn’t know what I was going to do as all of a sudden I had to have a different coach come away with me on all of the World Series. It was a little bit stressful as I had to compete for the first time since the Olympics.”

It was also the first time he was to compete internationally since Rio in the men’s synchro event with Goodfellow, who himself had been suffering from an injured tricep. “It didn’t quite go to plan,” said Daley. “Then I was starting to think maybe I should have just stuck to mixed synchro, maybe I shouldn’t be pushing myself to get back up there and do it as soon as I did. But then the individual event came around and I really wanted to do the best that I could and show that I was still one of the best divers in the world – and I came away with a bronze medal.”

He then went on to the second leg of the series in Guangzhou, where he said: “I went into that competition thinking, ‘You know what, I’m just going to give it everything, who cares, I’m going to enjoy it and give it the best shot that I can’.” This resulted in some of his best- ever dives and he came away with silver, which he followed by becoming the first Briton to win a medal in the men’s 10m, men’s 10m synchro and mixed 10m in the same competition, in Kazan. The series ended in a bronze in the final leg in Canada and sealed the most successful World Series in his diving career.

And just when it seemed he had surpassed all obstacles, he suffered an injury himself, then having to have injections in his hip and back, again just two months before the start of the World Championships in Budapest. “It was a little bit of a setback and that put me out of diving for about 10 days until I could build back up to the 10m. But when I got back up on to the 10m, after all the tests I had done, I increased the range in my back by 50% and for the first time I have been diving pain-free in a very long time.”

 

Success story

 

Diving pain-free together with a more relaxed approach to competition and a happy home life proved the best combination, which we were then able to witness in Budapest. Not only did we see him reclaim the world title he had won eight years before but he was also able to gain a silver medal in the mixed 3m springboard with Reid. “It’s crazy because I’m not a springboard diver and I got a silver at the World Championships,” he said of his success.

“This whole year I was making sure that I wasn’t just taking it as completely seriously as it was last year and making it the only thing I think about every single day, every single moment – so I got married.” And, after the championships were over, he was able to go on his honeymoon with his new husband, American film director Dustin Lance Black.

“There’s something about married life that changes the way that you think, the way that you feel or how secure you are and how everyday life just seems to be a whole lot better,” said Daley. “It was nice to have him here and be home and be with me while I was training and my training got better and better.”

This change in mentality, along with synchro partner Reid recently moving to London to train full-time alongside Daley and coach Figueiredo, is an exciting prospect for the future, especially when he is looking to fulfil his Olympic dream of winning individual gold at Tokyo 2020. And while there is no doubt that Daley’s exploits on the diving board over the last 10 years have made him one of Britain’s sporting greats, it is also his triumph over adversity that has made him a role model for future athletes around the world.

 

Congratulations on being voted the Best Athlete of the Year in the men's diving discipline – how does that feel?

It is such an honour to be given such a prestigious award. I have been working very hard since the Rio Olympic Games and I am over the moon with the way that this season has unfolded.

What changed in the year separating the Worlds from the Olympics in Rio, having turned things around so dramatically? What do you think went wrong in Rio?

I put so much pressure on myself going into Rio and I forgot about the real reasons why I love diving, and that is because I love to compete and be on the board. This year I really focused on enjoying every second of my competitions and it really changed my attitude in competition, and it got the best out of my performances.

 

It was an incredible moment for you to turn the Chinese celebrations before your last dive in Budapest into motivation to beat them, when some athletes would have crumbled under the pressure. How do you feel looking back at that now, having had time to reflect on what you achieved?

When I watched the video back from the competition, I don't really know how I did it... I was in a complete sense of competitive flow and I don't think in that moment there was going to be anything that could have stopped me.

Will you change your approach to competition now in the way you psychologically prepare, especially with Tokyo in mind?

Absolutely, the key to me diving well has always been when I am at my happiest and most relaxed and when my body is feeling good, so I really want to make sure I can maintain that mentality moving forward.

 

How are your preparations towards Tokyo going? Do you wish there were more events such as the mixed synchro for you to have more medal opportunities?

The preparations are going well, there is still a long way to go and I will do my best to make sure I am in peak physical condition for the Olympics in 2020. Of course I wish the mixed 3m synchro event was in the Olympics, as we won a silver medal at the World Championships, but hopefully in the Olympics in 2024 it will be included, as I think it is a great way to include both male and female sport together.

 

When you finally hang up your trunks, what legacy would you like to leave in your sport?

I think it is important for any kid out there, no matter their background, their race, religion, gender or sexuality, to know that they can achieve great things if they put their mind to it. One day those differences might just be what makes them the best at what they do.

FINA World Aquatics Gala “Soirée des Etoiles”
01Dec2017
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FINA Best Female Water Polo Team 2017: USA (USA)


 
“We have a culture of excellence”

 

The U.S. are once again the FINA Female Water Polo Team of the Year after a clean sweep of all the major events in 2017 – including their second straight and record fifth FINA World Championship. A year after racing through Rio en route to a second successive Olympic gold, a retooled roster did not miss a beat as it blitzed the field in Budapest with six victories in a row. They outscored their opponents 92-37 with only one game closer than four goals on the way to gold.

2017 marks the third straight year the team will be recognised as FINA’s top women’s water polo squad – but it’s been a long time in the making.

The early 2000s received a big boost for women’s water polo with the addition of Olympic water polo plus Title IX (US gender equality legislation) increasing women’s playing opportunities. A year after those Olympic Games in Sydney, the first NCAA Championship was decided in women’s water polo. Four-times Olympic medallist and 2012 gold medal winner Brenda Villa played in that initial championship tournament for Stanford University, losing to UCLA in the final. The loss aside, it was a pivotal moment for women’s water polo in the United States.

“Creating a strong pipeline as water polo became an Olympic sport was crucial to the future development of the sport,” said Villa. “Having the recognition and opportunity to compete as an NCAA sport has helped maintain the excellence. The easy access to the national team has given every young girl the opportunity to dream big.”

Villa was a unique athlete who bridged the gap between the pre-Olympic, pre-NCAA era and took it all the way up to Olympic gold. She caught the tail end of the group of pioneers and trailblazers who started back in the 1970s and continued through the 80s and 90s with no Olympics or NCAA-sanctioned college titles in sight – not to mention a lack of funding. They helped lay the groundwork for today’s success, lobbying for the inclusion of women’s water polo at the highest levels.

As the National Team worked through the 2000s picking up Olympic medals and World Championships, they set their aim higher.

“We have a culture of excellence in the United States and I know that one of my motivators was seeing other female team sports win [Olympic] gold and eventually have pro leagues,” Villa added. “Even with Olympic gold, I’m still dreaming of the day we can give that (league) opportunity to female water polo players.”

While professional league play still requires Team USA athletes to venture abroad, the culture of excellence has been achieved. Since 2014 the USA women have Olympic gold, FINA World Cup gold, Pan American gold, Olympic Qualification gold, two FINA World Championship golds and four FINA World League crowns.

How is this happening? Like most successful operations you can point to the personnel and the culture they create.

 

“Highlight everyone's best qualities”

 

In the pool, Team USA boasts some of the top water polo players in the world. Captain Maggie Steffens has twice been named FINA’s top female water polo player. 2017 FINA Worlds final match MVP Kiley Neushul and 2015 FINA Worlds MVP Rachel Fattal are two of the most complete players you’ll find in the game. And 2017 FINA Worlds MVP Maddie Musselman may someday push them all out of the way. That’s just part of the roster, and the team is highly adept at blending in new pieces.

This leads to the coaching staff, led by Krikorian. Like many of his players, he has racked up a small ocean full of awards and honours largely by assembling the best group that works best together.

Imagine an award-winning chef who cooks up one dish that leaves them lining up around the block. Every year this meal wins all the prestigious awards a meal could win. But what if every year for some reason or another the chef tweaked the recipe? He still needed vegetables – but this year it’s Brussels sprouts instead of carrots. And no matter what, the customers kept showing up. That’s kind of how it is with this team. 

FINA World Aquatics Gala “Soirée des Etoiles”
01Dec2017
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FINA Best Male Water Polo Team 2017: Croatia (CRO)

In the last two years, in 2016 and 2017, Marko played in almost all the finals in the world of water polo. He reached two consecutive Champions League finals with Jug Dubrovnik, won one and lost the second. He was goalie of the Croatian national teams which claimed silver at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and gold at the 2017 FINA World Championships in Budapest.

“We had the toughest possible road”

 

How do you recall the great triumph?

Every victory and trophy is an athlete’s delight, but the world title is... something special. This is the greatest success of my career so far. I’m really delighted and proud of all my team-mates. We showed that we are the best. It was hard. We had the toughest possible road to the top of the podium. Italy in the quarterfinals – a very unpleasant match but we won. Then a fantastic battle with Serbia in the semi-finals, against the world champions, sorry, the former world champions, ha-ha. Still, they are pretty strong, the Olympic title-holders, it should be appreciated. And finally, against the Hungarians in front of their, I do not even know how many, fans. Thousands and thousands...

 

Those are the words of one of the best water polo goalkeepers in the world, one of the best in Croatian history, not an easy distinction to earn. Of course, you are far the best in the Bijac family! This is not a joke because your father, Maro Bijac, was also a water polo player and, just like you, captain of Jug Dubrovnik.

I started to do some sports in the pool, as most kids do in Dubrovnik. I started swimming like everyone else, then at the age of 12-13, when a child has already learned to swim quite well, gains confidence and shows interest, the next sport in the line is water polo. So it was with me. I had been swimming for six or seven years, and then I went to play water polo.

 

But how did you become a goalkeeper?

I’ve always been taller than the average, but at the same time physically not that powerful. Then, one day at training, our goalkeeper didn’t show up, so the coach told me to go ‘in goal’, as goalkeeper.

 

“I like everything about the sea”

 

At your first World Championships, in Barcelona 2013, you got a bronze. Then in Kazan 2015 came the silver. Now in Budapest 2017, the gold. A perfect set of precious metals.

So let’s go on playing that same way at the Olympics. We had silver in Rio 2016, I hope Tokyo 2020 will bring the gold.

 

Is this the beginning of a ‘Croatian era’?

The public could have had the impression that Serbia is the unbeatable team in water polo, that Croatia cannot oppose them, things like that. It turned out that this is not the case. There is no need to create a great euphoria, however, and talk about this being our time and that we Croats will now win the next five gold medals of the five competitions coming, as we are phenomenal ... No, we are world champions, it’s a historic success but as I already said, there are a lot of things in our game that could be better. We all have to go for this and set it up for the next year and everyone has to do the same, with Tokyo as the last station of this cycle. But we all have to do our very best at the European Championships in 2018 in Barcelona, ​​the World Championships in Gwangju 2019, the European Championships in Budapest 2020, and then the Tokyo Olympics. We will always have to try to be better than at the previous event. Perhaps this approach will not always earn us gold, but we’ve been 10 years around the top in the world of water polo, especially in the last few years, from the 2012 London Olympics, where we were the winners, up until today. We failed to win a medal in only two competitions, at the European Championships in Budapest 2014 and in Belgrade 2016. Now we are on top, but it’s hard to say for sure we’ll have golds in a row, because there are really many fantastic teams. If you have only one bad day at a tournament, you will fall.

 

Those who love and follow water polo may know a lot about Marko Bijac, but one thing is less known, even by the fans: you are a passionate lover of underwater fishing. Do you stick to the basic principle, not to go alone?

Of course. Water polo is my love, I enjoy it, but it also my profession. However, underwater fishing is a passion. When I dive, it is my greatest pleasure. Actually, I like the sea. It does not necessarily always have to be diving, I like everything about the sea. That was passed on by my grandfather.

FINA World Aquatics Gala “Soirée des Etoiles”
01Dec2017
Link

FINA Best Female Swimmer 2017: Sarah Sjostrom (SWE)

She left Sweden last summer as a star and returned as a superstar. In less than four weeks Sjostrom claimed three world titles and a silver medal in Budapest and broke a total of six world records – two at the World Championships and four in the first cluster of the ensuing World Cup short-course series. In that time she was in five different countries: Turkey, for a training camp, Hungary, for the Worlds, and Russia, Germany and the Netherlands for three World Cup meets. It was not as tough as I had anticipated it would be. I had a lot of energy left when I came home again. It was a great summer, and I was able to perform well from the Mare Nostrum tour in June up until the end of the World Championships, even during the first cluster of the World Cup,” Sjostrom said.

 

“Some of the inner pressure disappeared”

 

What is the explanation for that?

“One is probably that I took a long break after the Olympics in Rio. It gave both my head and body a chance to recover properly. Another thing is that over the years I have got some perspective on things. My main goal as an athlete was to win an Olympic gold medal, and when I achieved that in Rio, some of the inner pressure disappeared. Which means that I today can enjoy training and competition even more. I really think I have the world’s best and most fun job, and I want to continue to develop as a swimmer. Somehow it feels like after the Olympics I enjoy myself even more now when I come to a championship.”

We can call this a winning concept. It certainly turned out really well at the World Championships, where she was named the Best Female Swimmer of the meet.

She currently holds seven world records (four long-course and three short-course), the same overall total as Michael Phelps, though Sjostrom, who has set 14 world records (8 l/c, 6 s/c) in her career, would be the first to admit that the American’s career haul of 39 world records – all but two in the long-course pool – is in a realm of its own. “It is awesome when I get compared to Phelps, but he is one of a kind. He has clinched 23 Olympic gold medals, and I will never win 23 gold medals in my career. I can say that right away,” she says, laughing.

Sjostrom lost one of her newly minted world records within days to Dutch former Olympic champion Ranomi Kromowidjojo, her 50 free short-course mark of 23.10 in Moscow on August 2 bettered by her rival’s 22.93 in Berlin on August 7, when Sjostrom was also inside her old mark in 23.00. I think Kromi was eager to take back her world record which I bettered in Moscow,” says Sjostrom, joking that she has not been robbed of the record but has merely lent it to Ranomi for a while.

The other short-course record Sjostrom would like to beat is the 50m butterfly, held by compatriot Therese Alshammar. It’s pretty cool that you have to beat the Swedish record to get the world record,” Sarah says. Sjostrom holds the long-course 50 fly world record (24.43) but knows her short-course best of 24.52 needs to come down a lot. I know I should swim so much faster in short course than what I have done so far. I would like to improve my time. It’s not so much about breaking the world record as it is that I would like to swim faster in short course than in long,” she says.

 

“I decide myself what competitions I want to go to”

 

After the World Championships and the three initial World Cup competitions, it was finally time for Sarah to get some time off. For four weeks she did not train on a regular basis, but still did more than normally during her time off because of her focus on the World Cup this year. It is the first time that she is swimming all the legs in the World Cup and she returned to the fray at the end of September in Hong Kong.

“Had it not been for the World Cup, I would have certainly taken a holiday throughout September, but now I needed to get started earlier. I may not be 100%, but it’ll be fun to race again,” she said.

She spent a few weeks in September in Belek in Turkey, training with a group led by British coach James Gibson. “It was my third time there. It’s nice to get away and just be able to concentrate on the workout, and then I really love swimming outdoors and getting some nice sunshine and warmth,” she said.

“It is challenging to train in an environment with other top-class swimmers, and I have a lot to learn when it comes to changing the technique of my freestyle as we work on making my strokes longer and more effective.”

With a change of coaches after the Rio Olympics – from Carl Jenner to Johan Wallberg – Sjostrom now takes even greater responsibility for her training and manages her own race planning: “Johan is writing my sessions but I choose the time for doing my strength workouts. And if I miss a workout in the pool, I can make up for it at a time that suits me. Now I also decide myself what competitions I want to go to.”

 

“I drive a Citroen!”

 

Before this edition of the Magazine went to print it was inevitable that Sarah would be continuing a battle with Katinka Hosszu for the overall World Cup title. They are competing not only for their own sakes, but also to give their nation the lead in the total number of World Cup victories on the women’s side. Sweden has five overall titles, four by Therese Alshammar and one by Anna-Karin Kammerling. Hungary has five, all courtesy of Hosszu.

“Of course it’s fun to represent your country and that Sweden, which is a small country, has done so well in the past,” Sarah says. “I feel good. My body feel good, but I am not in as good shape as I was during summer, because I have had four weeks off and have just started to train hard the last month.”

 What would the overall World Cup title mean?

“It’s a bonus. It is the first time I do all the competitions in the World Cup. The goal has been to just go away and compete a lot. I had not anticipated at all that I would lead the World Cup, I was very surprised. But I like surprising myself,”

Swimmers are not accustomed to earning big money but Sjostrom’s top results have secured her a tidy sum. However, she has neither bought a Porsche nor made any other extravagant purchase.

“No,” she laughs. “Absolutely not. I drive a Citroen. But I have done some travelling and been in Italy and in Majorca. But you have to save a little, too.”

When the short-course European Championships takes place in Copenhagen in mid-December, Sarah might not, somewhat surprisingly, swim the 100m butterfly. Instead she is considering the 200m freestyle – the distance she has always liked the least, though it did bring her a world record in the Eindhoven leg of the World Cup in August.

“The European Championships’ schedule does not fit me very well. The semi-finals of 100 butterfly and 200 freestyle finals are really tight, and it wouldn’t work for me to swim both. My freestyle has worked better than butterfly in short-course, so I thought of taking out the 100 fly…To my surprise the 200 freestyle went really well in the first World Cup races, and I thought it was really fun to swim it.”

It is clear, however, that Sarah would swim 50m butterfly, 50 and 100m freestyle and 100m individual medley at the European Championships. Breaking more world records would mean that she might go on cashing in.

 

 

 

FINA World Aquatics Gala “Soirée des Etoiles”
01Dec2017
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FINA Best Female Open Water Swimmer 2017: Ana Marcela Cunha (BRA)

 

“This title has a very special flavour,” Ana Marcela said. “Returning from surgery I started the season with not so good placings but I managed to rebound and improve in the overall rankings in the World Cup with the victory in Canada (Lac Megantic). It was followed by consecutive podium finishes, so in the end I just have to celebrate my second place in the overall. It was an incredible year.”

 

“I prepare from competition to competition”

 

The story is well-known, but it still hurts to recall that Ana arrived at the 2016 Rio Olympics a hot favourite at home but finished 10th in the 10km marathon. She had already begun treatment that culminated in the withdrawal of her spleen a month later. After recovery and rest she returned to training, targeting the FINA World Championships in Hungary.

“When you return from surgery you are afraid to give your 100 per cent because you do not know what can happen,” she said.

And, in addition to overcoming the frustration of the Olympics and the insecurity after surgery and the post-operative process, in the middle of the new chapter, when the journey on the bumpy road had just begun, came a change of coach. She had been training with Marcio Latuff, who had watched her development since she was a very young swimmer, and returned to Fernando Possenti, who had coached her when she claimed silver in the 10km and bronze in the 5km at the FINA World Championships in Barcelona in 2013.

In the waters of Hungary’s Lake Balatonfured this July, Ana Marcela won the 25km, the first woman to win the same event three times at the World Championships (she previously won in 2011 and 2015). She also bagged a pair of bronzes, in the 5km and 10km. “She won the 25 kilometres but she has yet to win the 10 or 5km. We always want more and I believe in her potential, while she believes in my work,” coach Possenti said.

Cunha went on to win the Lac Megantic leg of the FINA/Hosa 10km Marathon Swimming World Cup. It was her 17th victory in the history of the circuit – no other woman has won as much. The overall runner-up position in the World Cup ultimately put her ahead of France’s Aurelie Muller in the scoring criteria for the FINA Best Open Water Swimmer award. It was one more fine achievement in one of the golden careers in Brazil’s sporting history, confirming her place in the pantheon of open water swimming. Ana Marcela is Brazil’s most prolific female medallist ever in FINA World Championships, with nine medals (plus one at the stand-alone Open Water Worlds).

“One thing that I matured in was that previously I made long-term plans, I thought far ahead, unlike now, when I take one step at a time. I prepare from competition to competition,” Cunha said.

Always following a careful and extensive schedule, she says she spends only half of the year at home. Travelling to competitions and training is part of the routine she considers appropriate to achieve what she wants: the main podiums on the planet.

“We joke about this because we can divide the year into four parts. Three months at home, three months on a plane and three months in training camps, then three months at home again. It’s almost like that,” she smiled.

 

“I’ve been through a lot of hard things”

 

Recalling her life from her early years as a swimmer to the present time of successes and achievements, she never forgets to mention her family and the teamwork they have provided for her to follow her development as an athlete:

“I studied in the morning. I was going to train at 4.30, then I was at school by 7am because I didn’t want to sit back as a student. My grandparents helped me and sometimes the afternoon training ended at 7pm. As soon as I finished my practice, my grandparents were there with snacks. Then I had to wait for the bus for a while and it took another one and a half hours to return home. On this journey, I used to study or sleep. I arrived home about 10pm and had already finished everything because the next day I had to wake up again to train at 4.30. It’s always been a lot of struggle. That’s why I give a lot of value to what I have today. I always had my family by my side, I’ll always remember that ... When I had my difficult moments in Salvador, when I did not have such a good financial position, my parents sometimes stopped eating good-quality food to give me more to eat. I’ve been through a lot of hard things to get where I am and I’m sure I’ll always have my family in my life.”

In September, she had a new experience, training in South Africa, in Cape Town. She and Possenti went to the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA), a high-performance complex opened in 1995. Despite having competed from the age 14 and travelled all over the world, this was the first time she, a woman of African descent, had set foot on African soil.

 

“I love what I do, so it’s not a sacrifice”

 

Cunha has achieved enormous success on the World Championship and World Cup stages but a longed-for Olympic medal has so far eluded her. She got closest to the Olympic podium in 2008 in Beijing when she finished fifth. She failed to qualify for the next edition in London 2012: the top ten in the 10km from the 2011 Shanghai World Championships advanced to the Games and Ana came 11th, missing the last spot by 3.5 seconds. Tenacious as always, two days after the bitter disappointment in the 10km, she won the 25km. The next chance came in Rio in 2016, but this time her health difficulties and an acute problem with feeding in the middle of the race took her out of the leading group. However, giving up is not a word in her dictionary. She tried hard but came 10th. And it is not over yet. Now it is two and a half years to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Ana, as always, is looking ahead: “I love swimming. I love what I do, so it’s not a sacrifice. Yes, it is an abdication of some things, but there is a dream, there is discipline and I have one more thing: faith. I have a lot of faith.”

FINA World Aquatics Gala “Soirée des Etoiles”
01Dec2017
Link

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